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A murder unanswered: The aftermath of Tevin Nelson's death

Friday, January 6, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:46 p.m. CST, Sunday, January 8, 2012
Taquaisha Nelson, center, hugs her mother Trinia Nelson, right, as they visit the grave of brother and son Tevin Nelson on Dec. 26 at Log Providence Cemetery. Tevin's father, Keith Holmes, left, looks on his grave as well.

COLUMBIA Tevin Nelson's favorite holiday was Halloween. It gave him an excuse to act as he normally did — totally silly. He liked to wear masks from slasher films, chase his younger relatives and mock the women in exaggerated falsetto. It was his time of the year to shine, and his family loved it.

Tevin’s death at 21 could only have been caused by bad luck, his family would tell you. He was a jokester, not a gangster — not the kind of guy who picked fights.

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But during a gunfight in the early hours of Oct. 30, a bullet drilled into the back of Tevin's head and left him immediately brain dead. He was put on life support and taken off the next day.

Tevin was shot outside Peppers Nightclub, which closed its doors, possibly forever, in the aftermath of his death. News reports about the shooting focused on the notoriously seedy nightclub. Its owner still faces criminal charges for, among other things, promoting prostitution.

But away from the limelight were Tevin's parents, Trinia Nelson and Keith Holmes, who were struggling to reckon with something they'd never expected. They didn't even fully realize they had to bury their son until a nurse asked them which funeral home they wanted to use.

Meanwhile, a team of investigators was trying to figure out what happened. Officers had arrived at Peppers shortly after the shooting, but many witnesses had already left. Those who remained were, for the most part, uncooperative. There were leads, but many who were there feigned ignorance of the shooting, said Tom O'Sullivan, a detective with the Boone County Sheriff's Department.

A fundamental problem stalled progress: Tevin Nelson was black. And, as anyone interviewed for this story will tell you, many people within Columbia's black community distrust law enforcement. Mistreated by police in the past, they feel disinclined to cooperate now.

Investigators were able to track down some of the witnesses who had fled, but nothing fruitful came from those interviews. O'Sullivan was hopeful, but Peppers attracted what he called a criminal element — and a lack of cooperation with law enforcement was normal behavior for them.

Within days, leads were drying up. O'Sullivan needed cooperation. He needed a witness.

Homecoming

People kept asking Keith Holmes after his son's death what he was going to do about it.

What they meant was, "Who are you going to hurt?"

Holmes, 54, didn't have revenge on his mind. He has a criminal past, and he's open about it. But that was a lifetime ago.

Instead, he turned to prayer, as did many others. On Nov. 2, friends and family gathered — some in the parking lot at the exact spot where Tevin fell. They created a makeshift memorial, a large heart with the initials "T.N" on it. They left mementos, such as the Black & Mild cigars that Tevin loved.

His funeral was two days later. About 700 people gathered at the Friendship Baptist Church on Smiley Lane. It was a Saturday, and it was only warm when the clouds broke.

Tevin’s cousin Georgia Prince doesn’t remember crying. It had been nearly a week since Tevin's death, and this day was supposed to be less gloomy and more celebratory. That's what they wanted it to be — a celebration, a homecoming with God. Tevin was hardly serious or somber; his funeral shouldn’t have been any different.

Near the end of the service, a song, "I Won’t Complain," played. It closed with a repetition of thanks to God for "turning midnight into day."

Tevin's casket was illuminated by the light that poured through the church windows.

"That's when I knew," Holmes said. "My son went to heaven."

The mood at the cemetery was different from the church. The celebration gave way to the kind of sobriety that goes with the finality of a burial. Trinia Nelson cried.

Closure

Trinia Nelson is still crying.

"My heart is very much heavy," she said.

It's been weeks  — months — since Tevin's funeral. There is a palpable sadness in his mother's house. He was the one who made everyone laugh.

Tevin's girlfriend, Lillian Harris, still visits. They'd been together for almost a year when he died. They regularly said "I love you" to each other. She, like the rest of Tevin’s family, is far from over his death. "I think about it all the time," she said.

The last time Georgia Prince saw Tevin, he was walking out the front door of his mother's house. It was such a routine thing — leaving. She can't help but keep looking at the door. 

Tevin's great-aunt Edith Prince, who lives north of Columbia, drives down Range Line Street on her way to work. She passes Peppers daily. There's now a for-sale sign out front. The memorial is still there. That's the hardest part for her.

Trinia Nelson calls the Sheriff’s Department weekly as the investigation continues. "I'm still here," she tells them.

But Tevin's death is likely to remain unsolved unless someone speaks up. There are only so many leads to chase, so many lab tests to run. Without a witness, the Sheriff's Department probably won’t have enough information to make an arrest.

"There's no shortage of people who know what happened here," O'Sullivan said. "It'd be a whole lot easier if we got cooperation."

That doesn't make Tevin's family happy. There have already been two unsolved homicides in Holmes' family this year — the shooting death of Holmes' nephew Donnell Coleman in April and the death of his brother Marvin Holmes at DC's Bar and Grill in August.

They need some closure. Especially about Tevin.

But, Edith Prince said, "It might be something I just have to get used to."

Clown

In Tevin's vast family, he was known as the clown. His sense of humor is often mentioned first. But when the occasion arose, he was also there for his family, ready to help. That’s what brought him to Columbia in 2008, when he moved here from Minneapolis with his mother to take care of his grandmother who had cancer.

He lived with her until she died in August. Meanwhile, he helped out his other relatives, such as Edith Prince. For example, he once teased her after a rainfall. "Auntie, you need to wipe down that car," he told her. "There's spots all over."

She replied, "Well, that’s something you can do."

And he did.

Tevin grew up in Minneapolis, and he was foolish the way most children are. He and his siblings would race home only because whoever got there first would have control of the TV remote for the rest of the afternoon. When he won, he would take out the batteries so no one else could change the channel.

He would both annoy and amuse his parents by drinking all the juice in the house; his favorite was orange juice. He also ate everything in the kitchen, with the exception of onions, which he hated.

As a teen, he began to frustrate his mother with his behavior. He would get into trouble from time to time, and he didn't seem all that interested in graduating from high school. When he and his mother moved to Columbia, something changed. He enrolled at Hickman High School and decided that he needed to straighten up and earn his diploma.

He stayed in Columbia after graduation and helped his father, who has made a living moving furniture and detailing cars for more than 30 years. Tevin would stay at Holmes' house from time to time. Or he would stay with his mother.

It was through his dad that Tevin met Lillian Harris. With girls, he was sometimes shy and awkward. Holmes, who lives next door to Harris' cousin, knew that. So he told Tevin that Harris liked him. Then he told Harris that Tevin liked her. Neither had actually said that, nor had they ever really talked.

But when the two met, their relationship came naturally. She liked that he was so easy to get along with and that he loved to be around kids. He began to leave clothes at her mother's house, which became another of the many places he could call home.

In Trinia Nelson's house, there are still frequent conversations about him, as well as mementos such as T-shirts, photos and the program from his funeral.

Everyone likes to remember the good side of Tevin, who could entertain the family for hours or dispel even the gloomiest of moods. But none of this is to say he was perfect. His family doesn’t shy away from that.

Tevin became a legal adult in 2008, and since then, he has been convicted of assault or trespassing four times, according to Missouri Case.net. When he died, he was on probation for third-degree assault.

Where there was family, there was Tevin — and that wasn’t always a good thing. He was arrested alongside family because they did everything together.

He was especially close with his cousin E.J. Battles, who said they were "like the same person." They acted alike, even looked alike. They liked the same cigars. They'd find what money they could and buy one to share.

They were smoking a Black & Mild one day when a police officer pulled them over, assuming they had been passing a joint back and forth. People in Tevin’s family remember that moment with resentment. It's one of the examples they cite of how they have been mistreated by Columbia police.

Problem and solution

The story of Tevin's death can't be told without talking about the toxic relationship between blacks and police in Columbia. The investigation is at a standstill because no one will talk to detectives. Witnesses seem to be operating on a no-snitch code, protecting themselves and their friends at the cost of solving a murder.

So, what's the solution?

"If you've got an idea, let me know," O'Sullivan said.

Daryl Foster has one idea.

"It takes both the white and black keys on the piano to play The Star-Spangled Banner," said Foster, a member of First Ward Ambassadors. "That's what I’m interested in, and that’s something we can actually work on."

The problem, Foster said, is that there are guilty parties within both the black community and in law enforcement. The good cops don’t punish the crooked ones, and the good black kids don't stop the bad ones from getting into trouble.

Within a week of Tevin's death, Foster was speaking to black youth in Columbia. They don't know what they have to offer, he said. "Nobody's talking to them about being young, gifted and black," he said. "It's our community. It's our responsibility. They're our kids."

The Rev. Carmen Williams, the pastor at Tevin's church, has a similar goal of doing everything she can to make sure the good kids, like Tevin 10 years ago, stay good. At a prayer service following Tevin’s death, she wanted to give young people a way to vent and talk about their feelings.

But she also wanted the adults to make promises — that they would help the children graduate from high school and continue their education, encourage them to seek jobs and just be there for them.

Black children in Columbia don't have a positive identity and self-perception, Foster said, and fixing that would be a big step toward healing the city’s problems with race.

That’s what people want: something positive to take away from Tevin's death. There are the easy lessons — to appreciate life, for example — but Tevin’s family and community leaders want change.

Georgia Prince said: "We've got to get people to stop talking about it and start being about it. The negative — you can’t dwell on that."

As for law enforcement, Prince said, they have to realize that if they don't give respect, then they shouldn't expect cooperation in the homicide investigation. "What do they get from nothing but nothing?"

Halloween

It's possible that improving Columbia’s race problems couldn’t help solve a homicide like Tevin's. Some of the people who saw him die aren’t talking because they should not have been there that night. It was late, past curfew for those on parole. Talking to police would mean trouble.

The narrative of his death is patchy only in the most critical place, a short time span in which shots were fired and Tevin was killed. Who was firing the gun? Or guns?  These are questions that could be answered by a witness who might never come forward.

Based on interviews with law enforcement and Tevin’s family, here's what is known about his death:

Tevin spent his last day alive with his father. They met early in the morning Oct. 29, and Tevin drove Holmes around to run errands. At the end of the day, Holmes told his son: "Come by in the morning. I'll cook you breakfast."

They hugged and parted ways. Tevin returned to his mother's house to get ready to go out. He had plans to go to a birthday party, and Trinia Nelson wanted him to come home afterward. As he was leaving around 10:30 p.m., she told him, "Don’t go out after." He said he wouldn't.

But he did, and that's where the details of his final night get murky. People who were there won't say exactly what happened. His cousins who were there don't want to talk about it; that would involve reliving the moment they watched Tevin drop dead in front of them.

The rest of his family does know that after the party, well after midnight, Tevin met up with people at a gas station. They told him to come to Peppers. There, he joined friends and cousins, including E.J. Battles. Tevin always went where there was family.

If Peppers followed the law, it would have started closing down around 1 a.m. People would finish their last drinks, filter into their cars and return home or move on to the next party. But it didn’t close, and people lingered in the nightclub and the parking lot.

After 2 a.m., there was a crowd in the club's parking lot. Tevin had a feeling something bad would happen. He told a friend — whom family wouldn’t identify — to leave. "That person is taking it hard," Georgia Prince said. "He was able to get out safely, but Tevin didn't."

There was a warning shot. Then there were multiple shots. Some of those hit Vicky Battles' car, which Tevin's cousins were driving that night. There are apparent ricochet marks on the car, but O'Sullivan wouldn't answer any questions related to evidence.

Tevin fell.

One of the bullets, regardless of its origin, tore right through his brainstem — a target only one inch wide and about two inches long. Only chance could have brought the bullet to the perfect place to sever his brain from the spinal cord and effectively kill him before he hit the ground.

About 15 minutes later, Trinia Nelson was awakened by the phone. The message was short: "Tevin was shot." There was no mention of where or how badly. So, she went straight to Peppers, where she followed the ambulance that carried her son to University Hospital.

The news spread. Edith Prince awoke in the middle of the night to the same message, "Tevin got shot." She also didn’t know how severe it was. She went back to sleep and decided she would visit him after church in the morning.

Lillian Harris didn't know what to do when she heard what happened. She didn't go to the hospital right away. She left her house and walked — three, maybe four miles. She doesn't remember where she went or what she thought about. She doesn't remember a lot about that day.

Keith Holmes went to Peppers, hoping to see where his son was shot, but he couldn’t get past police. "That's my son who got shot!" he yelled, but they wouldn’t budge. He was told to leave. He went to the hospital.

Tevin was immediately put on life support. Multiple tests would show that he was brain dead, but he was kept alive to preserve his other organs. That's how his parents found him when they arrived at University Hospital.

Holmes had seen death before, and experience had prepared him to deal with the death of loved ones. This was different. He was angry, confused that God had let him live a long life when he didn’t deserve it. But Tevin — he didn’t deserve this.

The next morning, Edith Prince went to Russell Chapel for Sunday school. A special prayer was said for Tevin. Afterward, she went to the hospital, where she stayed for the next two days.

The doctors asked whether they should harvest Tevin’s organs for donation. Trinia Nelson said no. She didn’t want her son to suffer anymore. She and Keith only wanted to keep their son on life support long enough for one of his sisters to come down from Minneapolis.

Throughout Sunday, friends and family came to visit Tevin, who looked as if he were sleeping. His sister arrived on Monday. Some time before noon, his family decided to let him go that evening.

The children were told to leave Tevin's room. They would be taken back home to get ready for trick-or-treating. The adults in the family remained around Tevin’s bedside. He was taken off medication, and the respirator was turned off.

It took less than a minute. Almost instantly, Tevin's chest stopped rising. His family watched in tears. It was about 6 p.m. Oct. 31, and the boy who loved Halloween was dead.


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Comments

Steve Hirt January 6, 2012 | 2:37 p.m.

It is difficult to help a community when the community does not want to help itself. "Toxic" relationship is an excuse. If no one wants to step forward to solve Tevin's death then the entire community is responsibile for tragedy. The "no snitch" policy in the community is a travesty. How can you help someone that does not want to help themselves. When witnesses step up and police still cannot solve the crime then it is a police problem. Until there are witnesses it remains a community problem.

(Report Comment)
Jessica Lawson January 6, 2012 | 4:30 p.m.

Josh, this is a fantastically well-written article and a great way to leave the Missourian. Congratulations and good luck to you!

(Report Comment)
karin stuart January 12, 2012 | 8:22 a.m.

The no trust of police by African Americans isn't just a Columbia problem, it's a cultural problem. This problems exists everywhere, not just Columbia. How do you begin to change a cultural norm that has existed for generations?

(Report Comment)
mike mentor January 12, 2012 | 10:57 a.m.

@Karin
We should deal with it like we should anything else. Directly! Call it out for what it is. Cowardice. They are afraid of how they will be treated by their peers and not that Sheriff Bubba is going to take them for a ride and they won't come back. The biggest complaint in the story about "racial injustice" that he had suffered was getting pulled over because they were passing a cigar back and forth. Well, news flash. Most people don't share regular cigars. The shared smoke is usually the illegal kind. Two white kids passing a cigar back and forth would have raised the same suspicions from an LEO. Just sayin... If the community decides that being a coward is more important than solving crimes, there is really nothing that others can do except try to change their minds before it's their kids in the ground.

(Report Comment)

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